Monday, November 13, 2006

The highly readable second part of Karen Armstrong's autobiography

Is there anyone out there who is a fan of Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, Islam: A Short History and Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World, among many other titles?

She's recently published a new book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, which is available at Adyar. But it's one of her lesser-known books that has recently grabbed my attention – The Spiral Staircase. It's the second part of her autobiography, which started with Through the Narrow Gate.

If you're a fan of Karen Armstrong, then you'd already know that she was a nun for seven years (from age 17 to 24) in the 1960s. Despite her initial attraction to a life of devotion, her enquiring mind made it difficult for her to submit to the unquestioned discipline of convent life. In Through the Narrow Gate she outlines the mismatch between her questioning disposition and the rigours of the religious life.

The fact that the Second Vatican Council – with all its attendant upheavals – convened shortly after she entered the convent would not have done much to assist her adjustment to the life of a novice.

After a very painful realisation that she is unsuited to religious life, Karen Armstrong finally leaves the convent. You would think that at the still relatively young age of 24 she wouldn't have found it too difficult to adjust to secular life. But she experienced problem on top of difficulty piled upon obstacle. For years she suffered as an undiagnosed epileptic, experiencing frequent short blackouts and a sense of emotional distancing that caused a sense of alienation from other people. She studied at Oxford University for a PhD for 4 years, only to have her thesis rejected on technical grounds for which she was not responsible. The university administration was sympathetic towards her, but ultimately they upheld their regulations. You can imagine the sense of disappointment and emptiness that anyone would feel after having worked towards a goal for four years, only to have it all come to nothing.

She then takes up work as an English teacher in a school for girls, but also fails at this and is fired. It is during this time at the school that she is diagnosed as an epileptic. The diagnosis helps to alleviate the psychological pain of her condition, but ultimately fails to save her career.

One day, however, a friend encourages her to write her story of life as a nun. The friend buys a pad of paper and some new pens, and refuses to let Karen leave the house until she has written at least ten pages. Thus began the draft for Through the Narrow Gate and the start of a new career.

What really makes this book inspiring is to find out the story of pain and failure behind one of the world's great writers on religion. Often when we pick up a well-written book we imagine that the writer must have always had great confidence in their skills. But The Spiral Staircase shows how little belief Karen Armstrong had in her skills, and how it was only when she was in her mid to late forties that she finally found her metier.

This is not ostensibly a book of inspiration, but by virtue of its story of struggle and ultimate triumph it serves as an incredibly moving account of how one person found a meaningful place for herself in the world.

Tim

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